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He still limps, as he has ever since the accident that nearly killed him, but now his walk is slower and more painful to watch. On those rare occasions when he removes his familiar white golfing cap in public—when, for example, he is introduced to a lady—he reveals gray hair, and not much of it. His face is pudgy, and his waist is perhaps a 36, but better not ask him because he can still throw a look that could start a brush fire. And, in spite of his 57 years, he can still hit a golf ball. Can he ever!
It was a year ago that someone made the mistake of asking Ben Hogan if he would consider returning to tournament golf, if only on a semi-serious basis. The Hogan eyes flashed and he replied tartly: "Whenever I play golf, it's serious." Last week at the Champions Golf Club in Houston Ben Hogan played in his first tournament since the 1967 U.S. Open and proved that he was very serious indeed, shooting a 71-75-71-70—287, to finish tied for ninth, five strokes behind winner Gibby Gilbert. Not vintage Hogan, true, but during the four days of play he gave the galleries and the touring pros, many of whom hurried out to watch him after completing their own rounds, flashes of the brilliance other galleries had seen at Oakmont, Carnoustie and Merion.
Take, for example, the back nine Thursday. Hogan had managed a somewhat shaky 38 going out, and there was a nagging fear he might shoot another 38 or worse coming back. But on the second nine he hit only two slightly imperfect shots. His approach at 11 strayed into a trap on the right, but then the pin was over that way. He recouped by blasting out two feet from the cup. And his drive on 18 was far enough to the right of dead center—still on the fairway, mind you—that the bough of a tree blocked his path to the green. So Hogan sent a low four-wood under the bough that ran right up on the green.
The rest of the back nine was perfect. He had makeable birdie putts on every hole. On 15 he hit his approach four feet from the cup and made the putt. The gallery, which in the absence of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, constituted most of the people on the course, applauded as in a tennis match. On 16, a par-3, Hogan hit his tee shot three feet from the pin, and when he made that putt for another birdie there were Palmer-like whoops from the crowd. He finished with two pars for a 33.
Hogan's front nine on Sunday was even more spectacular. Paired with Lee Trevino—two Texans, two Open champions, two guys with killer instincts—Hogan started par-par-birdie-birdie-birdie-par-birdie. Seven holes, four under par and suddenly Hogan was not only giving Trevino a lesson on how to win four U.S. Opens, he was in position to win this tournament. His tee shot on 8, a par-3, almost hit the pin but rolled to the back of the green and when Hogan three-putted, the magic was gone. But what a performance it had been.
In the almost three years since anyone saw him hit a golf ball, Ben Hogan spent most of his time working at his golf-club factory in Fort Worth, with side trips to the hospital. In March 1968 his doctor, Robert Dunn, removed some calcium deposits from his left shoulder, the result of his automobile crash in 1949. Dunn was also hoping to operate on Hogan's delicate left knee but decided the risk of permanently crippling him was too great. It is the knee that causes the limp and has forced Hogan to adopt a new swing, so that he now hits the ball off his right side before the weight shifts to his left. For support of the knee he wears a white rubber brace under his pants leg, and at Houston he occasionally stopped in the fairway and tugged at it to keep it from slipping. On the 6th hole of the first round, when he was one under par, he suddenly topped his drive about 120 yards off the tee. His next shot hooked low into the woods. He took a double-bogey 6 and later explained that he had teed the ball too low on the drive and that the ball was below his feet on the second. Maybe. Those who saw it lean to the belief that the knee gave way both times.
During his absence from the tour, Hogan played little golf—only about 10 times a year by his own count. But he did keep track of the Beards, Hills and Coodys by watching the game on television—"Oh my, yes, all the time." This spring, however, he thought that perhaps his knee might be strong enough for 72 holes, and this, plus his endless desire, started him toward Champions.
Two weeks before the tournament, Hogan arrived in Houston for some intensive practice. When he was satisfied that the knee would hold up, he moved out to one of the cottages near the club, where his wife Valerie joined him. On the Saturday before the tournament began, he filed his entry blank. This was not a comeback, he said. No U.S. Open, no PGA, nothing like that. Just a tournament at Champions, a flat course and, if that goes well, another at his home club, Colonial, the following week.
Word of Hogan's entry caused the normally blasé pro golfers to react like sightseers on Hollywood and Vine. None of them were immune. Hogan was there waiting for them, and everywhere he went clusters of players stopped talking and gawked. Some did it shamelessly, others just happened to be looking around and, what do you know, there was Ben Hogan. On the practice putting green, Gene Littler and Lionel Hebert kept sneaking quick looks at Hogan as he putted. When Hogan sat in front of his locker, it was astonishing how many players had business in that area. There was a wide difference of opinion as to what to call him. Many of the players, and certainly all of the younger ones, called him "Sir" or "Mr. Hogan." A few called him Ben, and Johnny Pott compromised by calling him "Mr. Ben."
"You have to realize that to us this man is a god," said Bert Yancey. Hale Irwin saw Hogan's back nine on Thursday and kept muttering, "A legend, a legend." Dale Douglass and Dick Lotz were watching when Hogan came out of the trap two feet from the flag. Douglass looked at Lotz and merely rolled his eyes. Al Balding, no youngster, finished his round, grabbed a golf cart and streaked out to join Hogan. Before play began, R. H. Sikes said, quite seriously, that he'd appreciate a shot-by-shot account of Hogan's first round. When he got it, he pored over it for 10 minutes.